Whether on you agree with Pinker’s views, it cannot be said he hasn’t done his homework. Of the 20,316 Kindle segments (832 physical pages) that make up The Better Angels of our Nature, 5,418 (26%) are devoted to notes, references, and the index. Of course, citing lots of references doesn’t make the premise of a book true, but it does make it harder to dismiss it out of hand.
We’ve all heard business leaders, moralists, and pastors invoke the analogy of the boiling frog: if you throw a frog in boiling water, it will immediately jump out, but if you put a frog in a vat of warm water and gradually warm it up, the frog will not jump out, eventually boiling to death. Whenever you hear this analogy invoked, you can be sure you’re about to be told how we need to be more acutely aware of the dangerous trends around us that, left unchecked, will gradually but inexorably lead to our demise--economic, moral, cultural, or spiritual. I consider The Better Angels to be the flip side of boiling frog alarmism: over the centuries, violence of all kinds (including homicide, warfare, genocide, domestic violence, slavery, human and animal torture, rape, child abduction, and cruelty in general) has gradually but dramatically declined over the centuries.
But you wouldn’t learn this by listening to the media or to fundamentalist religious leaders. In centuries past, there were no 24/7 cable news outlets spotlighting all the sensational and unthinkable acts of violence that we routinely observe today. Our brains do not naturally place in proportion to the 7 billion inhabitants of our planet the vivid and sensational but anecdotal images of violence we daily witness on the television. News reports don’t encourage us to think statistically as do criminologists, who analyze trends based on how many homicides are committed per one hundred thousand people per year. Yes, crime rates did rise between the late 1960s and the early 1990s, but the broader long-term trend, both before and after this relatively brief spike in violence, has been sustained, unmistakable, and significant. In fact, murder rates have declined by 50-to-100 fold since the Middle Ages. The homicide rate in North America is now 6 per 100,000 people per year, and even lower in western and central Europe, where it stands at 1.2. In 2007, four years before publishing his book on the subject, Pinker gave an 18-minute TED speech on the decline of violence. Particularly compelling is the graphical comparison of death rates in warfare for modern day hunter-gatherer societies (the closest we have to representatives of our primordial state) to those of Western countries in the twentieth century (see minute 3 of the talk). The blue bar representing Western deaths (including both world wars) barely registers on the graph compared to the longer red bars representing the death rates for all hunter-gather societies.
We know that the news media benefit from our fascination with televised violence; this helps explain how most of us have come to believe that the rates of violence are higher than they really are as a proportion of our population. But how do religions, particularly Christianity in the West, benefit from our mistaken thinking that things are getting worse rather than better? My two conclusions on this are my own rather than Pinker’s. I welcome your thoughts if you differ from me.
First, the notion that violence and cruelty have declined over time runs counter to the Christian (especially Calvinist) doctrine of total depravity. Human nature being totally depraved at is it is, we should not expect that society will improve substantially from one generation or era to the next, unless during that period the influence of the gospel has been on the rise. But at least in the West, we find the opposite: in the past few hundred years, secularism has waxed while violence of all kinds has waned (even it it has spiked at times, as during World War II, which was the ninth-most deadly war in recorded history as a percentage of world population; the deadliest was the relatively unknown An Lushan rebellion of 8th century China). Make no mistake: Pinker is not an idealist who thinks that human nature is inherently benign and immune from a penchant for evil; the bulk of his book The Blank Slate is devoted to putting any such pollyanaish notion to rest. But political systems and attitudes toward different kinds of violence can and do change over time, and these changes in attitudes lead to corresponding changes in practice.
Second, if things are truly getting better, then perhaps there’s not as much room for the fundamentalist outlook that says, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket; I’m so glad Jesus will be returning to set it all straight; in the meantime, we need to introduce Jesus to as many as people as possible to prevent things from getting worse than they otherwise would.” If we as humans, collectively (believers and unbelievers alike), through government initiatives, United Nations programs, secular or humanistic argumentation, novels, movies, and the modern evolution of attitudes toward violence--if we all can make the world a better place, then there is less incentive for the faithful to seek refuge in the church from the evils of the outside world.
On a lighter note, I’d like to include a somewhat tangential humorous excerpt from page 69 of The Better Angels of Our Nature (an excerpt I read to my family, to great guffawing).
“In 1530 the great scholar Desiderius Erasmus, one of the founders of modernity, wrote an etiquette manual called On Civility in Boys which was a bestseller throughout Europe for two centuries. By laying down rules for what people ought not to do, these manuals give us a snapshot of what they must have been doing.
“The people of the Middle Ages were, in a word, gross. A number of the advisories in the etiquette books deal with eliminating bodily effluvia:
‘Don’t foul the staircases, corridors, closets, or wall hangings with urine or other filth. • Don’t relieve yourself in front of ladies, or before doors or windows of court chambers. • Don’t slide back and forth on your chair as if you’re trying to gas. • Don’t touch your private parts under your clothes with your bare hands. • Don’t greet someone while they are urinating or defecating. • Don’t make noise when you pass gas. • Don’t undo your clothes in front of other people in preparation for defecating, or do them up afterwards. • When you share a bed with someone in an inn, don’t lie so close to him that you touch him, and don’t put your legs between his. • If you come across something disgusting in the sheet, don’t turn to your companion and point it out to him, or hold up the stinking thing for the other to smell and say “I should like to know how much that stinks.”’
I’ll leave you with another of my favorite quotes to whet your appetite, this one from page 136:
Charles Napier, the British army’s commander in chief in India, faced with local complaints about the abolition of suttee [the practice of burning widows], replied, “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”
It’s a long book but well worth reading if you’re interested in a wide range of subjects showing how conditions have improved over time, along with Pinker’s analysis of why they have improved. The reasons he gives are admittedly more subjective than his documenting of the improvements themselves, but whether or not you accept his reasons, it’s well worth knowing that the world is a much better place for humans in general than it was centuries ago. If you’re at all interested, I recommend that you first get a taste for it by viewing the previously referenced video and by reading Peter Singer’s New York Times review of the book. Happy reading, and be of good cheer! The end is (probably) not near!